The Common Core Academic Standards agenda for America’s K-12 public schools has become a divisive subject across the country. But in Idaho, most supporters of the initiative remain confident in the program’s stated goals, while others report being unaware of its controversies.
The most recent controversy over Common Core came from an unexpected source with comments not often heard on the political landscape. While speaking at a gathering of the Council Of Chief State School Officers, a nationwide association of state school superintendents of which Idaho State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is a past president, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan stated that opposition to the agenda was coming mainly from "white suburban moms."
The problem, Duncan explained, is that because of the enhanced academic rigor in their children’s schools brought about by the Common Core standards, white mothers are newly discovering that their children are not "brilliant."
"I have heard nothing about this," said Bob Sobotta, superintendent of Idaho Catholic Schools, a private school group that nonetheless is part of a statewide coalition supporting the Common Core agenda in Idaho. "People just overreact to things," he told IdahoReporter.com when contacted and asked for comment about Duncan's remarks. “We’ll do anything in our schools if it will help raise standards and that’s what Common Core does.”
On the other hand, Melissa McGrath, a spokesperson for Luna was familiar with Duncan’s remarks. “Superintendent Luna cannot comment on Secretary Duncan’s remarks,” she stated, but also noted that Luna doesn’t believe the Common Core standards are necessarily held in low regard by white mothers, adding “The support the standards have received in Idaho has not been limited to one political, ethnic or socio-economic group.”
For his part, Duncan has been subject to increasing scrutiny ever since local school districts across the U.S. began to implement the Common Core academic standards this fall. School superintendents and administrators, union bosses and business leaders mostly praise Duncan and the Common Core agenda, while a number of parents and some classroom teachers have become increasingly critical of him.
Shannon Styles, a New York-based high school teacher and author of the Huffington Post’s famed Mrs. Mom Blog accuses Duncan of “not listening” to the people he’s supposed to serve. Similarly, Anthony Cody, an educator from California and a writer for the journal Education Week calls the Common Core agenda a “fiasco in the making,” and claims that public schools were coerced into complying with it.
In 2011 the Idaho Legislature approved a decision by the state board of education that schools in the Gem State would participate in the initiative. While one of the stated objectives of the Common Core agenda is to create uniform academic standards across all 50 states in grades K-12, the agenda does not technically prescribe curriculum in schools, yet critics claim that uniform standards will lead to curriculum uniformity and federal government control of local public education.
One such critic is Stephanie Zimmerman, a Boise-area mom who founded Idahoans For Local Education (ILC), a grassroots group that opposes the ways it says Common Core inserts federal government influence in local schools.
“I had to laugh because I realized that once he said that, he stirred a hornet’s nest," Zimmerman told IdahoReporter.com when asked about Duncan’s recent racially charged remarks about mothers. “You just don't mess with moms that way. He (Duncan) is insinuating that mothers aren't realistic about their children, but for the most part mothers are very realistic about this. It does us no good, as parents, to not be realistic about our kids and their capabilities."
Jamie Gass, a researcher with the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, concurs with Zimmerman. “It’s just disgraceful that Secretary Duncan is berating suburban mothers who are asking basic questions,” he commented.
Beyond Duncan’s comments about white moms, however, both Zimmerman and her ILC associate, Stacey Knudsen, cite several reasons for their opposition to the Common Core agenda.
For one, they claim (just as Cody does) that the U.S. Department of Education has coerced individual states into participating with the Common Core agenda by threatening to withhold federal education dollars from states that don’t participate. “The whole thing all ties back to federal funding,” Knudsen told IdahoReporter.com.
Luna, the state’s primary advocate of the Common Core agenda, acknowledges that the federal government has in the past sought to co-opt the initiative. He says that Idaho can opt out of the agenda if that becomes a problem again in the future.
Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a Common Core supporter, doesn’t worry about federal control of Idaho’s education either. “I think we’d see pushback from Idahoans if the feds tried to exercise control like that, but I just don’t see that happening.”
Another concern that the ILC raises about Common Core is the collection and transmittal of personal student data. “Idaho set up what is known as a statewide longitudinal data system in compliance with the Common Core agenda,” Zimmerman explained. “It collects information pertaining to the household income, family religion and political affiliation of the child’s household.”
Sobotta says he is unaware that the Common Core program does any such thing. “I’ve never heard anything about this,” he told IdahoReporter.com. “We need to remain focused on academic standards, that is what this is about.”
The Idaho Department of Education’s longitudinal data system plan can be viewed here.
In the face of growing opposition from the ILC and other parents and teachers, Common Core advocates in Idaho formed a coalition earlier this year that has sought to re-brand the agenda while avoiding the use of the name Common Core. On July 23, Idahoans for Excellence In Education announced a roster of supporters for what it named “Idaho Core Standards,” which included business leaders, district superintendents and educators.